It had been 6 months since I’d been home and I was craving a piece of Nairobi. Desperately seeking a cure for my homesickness, I turned to the short documentary FACT Magazine had done on Nu Nairobi, the city's vibrant, underground music scene - a documentary I’d only watched about ten times now. Cued after was Vallerie Muthoni’s latest single, ‘Brown Suga’, a song I had been meaning to check out. I was immediately drawn to the videos visuals which are a clear celebration of Nairobi’s creative culture featuring artwork from local artists and clothing from popular brand, Bongosawa Republik. However, what hooked me was the audaciousness of the track which opens with the femcee spitting “Brown Suga done killed it/Brown Suga done stole the game and ran with it” over a bass-heavy trap beat. With witty and confident bars, Vallerie was unapologetically announcing her presence as a one-to-watch from Nu Nairobi’s burgeoning music scene.
The singer, rapper, performer, poet and former YouTuber's creativity first manifested itself through her writing poetry in high school. However, music had always been what she was drawn to. “When I finally got out of high school, I knew music was definitely what I wanted to do so I did music.” She released her first single, ‘Sunday Afternoon’, in 2016.
Vallerie added rapper to her title in 2017 when she released, ‘No Chances’. “I woke up one day and I got these bars and just wrote them down. The next day I went to school and told my producer friend, his name is FireOneSam, I need a beat and he made it in 20 minutes. I recorded it and I knew - I mean I didn’t know how much reception the song would get but I knew people would be shocked because I never mentioned that I’d rap”. The songs reception came as a pleasant surprise. Her fans were hearing her rap for the first time and they loved it. Realising that Nairobi was more than ready for an up-and-coming female emcee, Vallerie embraced this new facet of her creativity and her rap alter-ego Brown Suga was born.
Not tied down by genre, Vallerie flows from one style to the next. From the R&B tinged ‘Sunday Afternoon’, to the groovy, funk infused ‘Get Down’, to her witty bars on ‘Brown Suga’, she has proven that she is capable of effortlessly navigating broad sonic spectrums. Her upcoming 8 track EP, The Wavey Soul, will feature R&B, Hip-Hop, Lo-Fi Hip Hop and Afro-beats, and is set to serve as further testament to her musical versatility.
Oozing with passion about for craft, Vallerie Muthoni indulged me in conversation about her musical journey, her upcoming EP, and how she hopes to leave a mark on Kenya’s music industry.
Who’s been your inspiration musically?
From time I’ve always looked up to Beyonce. I know it’s a cliche answer but for me, as an artist, I’m drawn to people who can perform. And of course Beyonce is everything and more! Her music is amazing as well. So there’s Beyonce, there’s MJ [Michael Jackson] of course, there’s Anderson Paak., Childish Gambino...And in Kenya, I’m a very, very big fan of Muthoni the Drummer Queen. I’ve been really blessed to have been able to work alongside her. But, yeah. I mean girl, those are my inspirations. Did you ask inspirations or motivations?
Inspirations but we can go into motivations as well.
I mean basic motivations is just, I’ve told myself that this is what I want to do and I’m not giving myself much of an option. Even if I’m pursuing journalism right now as, you know a plan B, music...I’ve never seen myself doing anything else. So that alone motivates me. It being like hey, this is what I’m going to do and I can’t fail you know.
When was the first time you performed live and what was that experience like for you?
The first time I’d say I was on a really big stage, and that was a really monumental part of my career, was when I performed at Blankets & Wine. That was my first huge performance and it was amazing. I opened for Shekinah and I was performing alongside so many incredible Nairobi acts. And the audience was amazing. I don’t know, it was just the bomb! I loved every minute of it.
I think its cool that you want to pursue music full time but the way the industry is set-up currently, especially with lack of governmental support, its hard for people to be artists full time. So what things, as an artist, would you want to implement or change to make the industry more sustainable?
There are so many things I could change but one is, is the system of collecting royalties. Kenyan music is played a lot - in clubs, on radio, and most people who have their music being played don’t even know or have an idea that they should be getting that money. So I feel like that education should be taken seriously by the government and they should create a proper, clean, non-corrupt way of getting the revenue to the artists. And also, there are so many hindrances not just in the music area but in the creative scene in Kenya - its all of us, we’re all in the same boat. So things like you can’t use drones in Kenya, or you can’t shoot in certain places It’s an old mentality that doesn’t work. I hope, you know, maybe we can get younger representatives for the creative industry in government that will help in terms of mentality.
Yeah, I feel you on that. Hopefully change is coming soon.
So, of the songs you’ve written, which has been your favourite and why?
I’d say, right now, from the ones that are out currently, ‘No Chances’. It was the most fun to write because it was just so easy, very spontaneous. I woke up at like 2AM with an idea, the first two lines, and I just wrote. When I got the beat, I was in a car, it was raining and yeah. But there’s so much more music coming from the EP that if you maybe asked a month from now, I’d probably have a different answer, but from the singles I have out it’s ‘No Chances’ for sure.
You mentioned that Brown Suga is your rap alter ego which I love. And I love the song. It’s just you proclaiming to the world that you’re a bad b. What was the process of putting that song together?
For my EP, I’m currently working with a producer called Kaheal Beats. He has his beats on YouTube. I was at work one day and I was really bored so I found one of his beats and I was like this shit is fire dog. I asked him if I could write over it. I wrote it at work. I was just chilling but I knew this was the song that I wanted Brown Suga to really talk her shit and just be the baddest bitch. You know, naturally, I’m not that outspoken and wouldn’t say “I’m gonna take your man/ No it’s not the plan”, I wouldn’t say that. So for me this was just an outlet to be as confident as I want and be as feisty as I want. Even the music video, shooting it was so fun. I shot it with this director, she’s also a student, she’s called Natasha Ayoo, so talented. And I worked with Bongosawa [a Kenyan clothing brand] which I love, they’re fam. Everyone and every part of that music video was so organic and so filled with love. The Alchemist hosted me and Kenya Railways Museum, there’s a bunch of artists who have a studio there, they were so cool with me using their art. That was the NuNairobi love, that was the epitome of it.
In terms of producers you collaborate with. Do you have any go to producers in Nairobi? Or do you usually get your beats online?
For this EP, there’s only two international producers, but the rest are Kenyan. Talented producers. Like there’s a guy called FvzzKill and there’s a guy called Manu. And they’re all Kenyan, and I’m just really excited. They’re really good. I see their work and I enjoy their work and the fact that they’re working with me, I feel blessed.
What’s your favourite venue in Nairobi, either to perform or just to be at as a person enjoying music?
The Alchemist has been monumental in the NuNairobi culture because, it’s always been such an intimate space for us. I feel like The Alchemist has bred the underground music scene, the underground culture. I always say to my friends and fellow artists, us “NuNairobi” - the music, art, the film industry - are all under revolution right now because we are building something that’s so beautiful. The music that is coming out of Nairobi is so beautiful. It’s just starting to be heard internationally and people like EA Wave or Muthoni Drummer Queen are putting us on the map. So whatever is being made right now is going to be used as a reference in like five years. I think it’s safe to say The Alchemist has played a huge part in allowing us to perform and letting us be comfortable to express our art in that space.
Would you say that creative scene in Nairobi is super open to new people coming in and just jumping on the wave? Is that how you’d describe the vibe?
Yeah, I think that’s the epitome of NuNairobi. Right now in the NuNairobi scene we have sub-genres: we have Shrap, which is sheng and rap; we have the whole EDM scene, people like SURAJ, you have people like EA Wave; then you have people like Tetu Shani. I think that’s the beauty of NuNairobi. We have so many different genres with so many different people doing so many different sounds and with different personalities saying different things and it’s so accepted by everyone. You may not like it and it may not be your genre but you know, you’ll acknowledge that it is part of who we are and who we’re growing to be.
Outside of music, what other stuff are you into? Are you into books, are you a movie-head?
Girl, I do everything! I’ve had so many creative phases. I’ve had a poetry phase. I’ve had a graphic design phase. I had a photography phase. I had a YouTuber phase. But right now I’m focusing all of that creative energy into my music. But as I’ve said, I’m studying journalism. I’d also love to be a TV personality, have my own radio show maybe. I love series, I love listening to music. And Twitter. That’s pretty much my life right now.
So now we’re just going to do a rapid-fire round.
Who are your top five favourite artists?
- Anderson Paak
- Donald Glover
- Kanye West (even though it’s controversial)
- And Masego
This might be harder but what are your top five favourite albums or mixtapes?
Yeah, that’s definitely harder. Okay, can we break that question down to two? I know that’ not how it’s done but can we do like my favourite ones that I’m listening to currently and then my top five favourite of all time?
Okay fine, let’s do that. Current and then all-time.
- Outside - Burna Boy
- KTSE - Teyana Taylor
- KOD - J. Cole
- Ye. - Kanye West
- Everything Is Love - The Carters
My all-time favourite albums:
- Blonde - Frank Ocean
- Because the Internet - Childish Gambino
- Flower Boy - Tyler the CREATOR
- (This is actually really hard!)
- Malibu - Anderson Paak.
- H.E.R Volume 1 - H.E.R
Who are your favourite East African artists?
What’s your dream collaboration? The person could be dead or alive.
In Africa, I really want to collab with Burna Boy. I’ve tweeted that into existence! And then internationally...Masego.
Final question. What are your future aspirations?
For one I want to perform just to perform. Perform locally and internationally and have my music out there. And also be part of somehow building this industry. By the time I’m 30, I’ve played an active role in making sure young artists are able to go through their craft without having to worry. Also, hopefully I’ll have my own radio show, a few albums out, yeah.